Friday, September 19, 2008

Paul Kagame on technology, self-reliance and Africa's victim mentality

Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda, spoke yesterday at MIT and I had the privilege to be there. It was quite an interesting talk - not typically the one you would expect from a head of state. Sure, he had to talk about Rwanda's process and improving economy, but Kagame was also quite candid about Africa's need for better leadership and increased self-reliance. As Rwanda's first democratically elected president, his words ring true.

The core of Kagame's talk was about how mobile technologies are transforming Rwanda's economy. Kagame points out that 28 million subscribers to mobile network have create an almost instant infrastructure for his country's entrepreneurial people. Business models being transformed. One example Kagame gave was fascinating - mobile payments for metered energy. Electrogas, one of Rwanda's biggest utilities as a power supplier, was once a money-losing, inefficient company that could not collect its bills. Now it sells metered energy through mobile payments at retail outlets, and is profitable. That means the money the nation of Rwanda was spending to subsidize the utility can now go towards more important goals.

According to Kagame, education is highest on that list. Rwanda is a participant in the One Laptop Per Child program, and Kagame believe that education and understanding technology is the key to bringing Rwanda and Africa in line with the rest of the world in terms of living standard. Kagame stated that Rwanda's goal is to be a middle income country by 2020, an ambitious goal, but a good one to set.

Answering questions from students (how many heads of state do that?), Kagame took quite a strong stand on Africa's mentality as a victim. He said, "Africa must stand on its own." He said that African countries must become stable and economically successful, and provide their own services, not just hold its hand out to the West as they have done for so many years. He said "It is as if we have become comfortable with that, that people will come from the outside to address our problem." He laughed at the suggestion that the Chinese are different from past trading partners, and certainly no worse than past colonial raiders. The implication is that it doesn't matter who comes to Africa for its resources, Africa must learn to take the revenue and transform its economies into self-supporting entities that can meet the needs of its people.

Kagame closed out by saying “Africa needs to stand up and make itself relevant.” That statement drew a standing ovation from the crowd.

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